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Church’s hidden railway

10 May 2013

WHEN most churches upgrade their heating, they go for the most up-to-date system they can afford - but not at St John the Baptist, Pockley, near Helmsley, in York diocese. There they have gone back to Roman technology. The church was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, and is a handsome church for a small village.

Its original heating system was a Victorian adaptation of the Roman hypocaust, and very unusual. The underfloor warm air came through ducts from a coke boiler beneath the church. The boiler had its fuel delivered from outside, on a miniature railway, along a 25-foot brick-lined tunnel, and the flue was cleverly concealed in the bell tower.

The present congregation had forgotten all about this, the church having used portable heaters since at least the 1950s in what always felt a freezing building. But one day, the churchwarden, John Ashworth, decided to explore a hole that he had long noticed in the side of the church (above).

"I crawled in and found a railway track, which led to a space where there was an old cast-iron boiler in bits. There was a trapdoor in the roof which I forced open, and I found myself in the middle of the church. . . We took up the carpets which had been laid over the vents, and exposed some wonderful Victorian tiles."

Mr Ashworth went on to secure a grant of £3500 from the North York Moors National Park Authority to install a new multi-fuel boiler, and clear the chimney of debris from jackdaw nests. "We had our first service with the new boiler working on Easter Sunday, and it was delightfully warm and the air smelled fresh. Usually, people couldn't wait to get out. Last weekend, I couldn't get rid of them as they hung around in the warm, talking."

The Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Andrew de Smet, says that as the church has excellent acoustics, they intend to hold musical evenings in comfort. "This has injected new life into the church," he says.

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